Silent Hill


Review by Greg Wilcox



Graphics: 9

Sound: 9

Gameplay: 7

Overall: 8

What makes you afraid? Is it the fear of the dark, of what lurks just out of sight, skittering away as you flick on the light? Do you fear that place that you’ve only visited in a dream because it seems so real until the weird makes itself flesh? Or are you one that is a bit more grounded, only afraid of unknown, unspeakably evil things that could only happen to others, but not to you? Well, dear reader, some talented programmers at Konami have gotten hold of whatever is hidden deep in your mind and have come up with perhaps the most disturbing video game to date, the creepy and unsettling Silent Hill.

silenthill1ps1.jpg (33671 bytes)From the wordless opening cinema which brilliantly sets up the story and segues right into near flawless gameplay to the multiple endings, this game deserves your undivided attention, and gets it, at least until you get too scared to go any further. If you haven’t picked this title up yet (thinking that it’s another Resident Evil clone), you’re missing out on one hell of a ride. While the game does borrow some minor details from the Capcom “classic”, it also brings to the table a great deal of depth, in terms of the element of fear. The basic story is a simple one: Harry Mason and Cheryl, his 7-year-old daughter are on the way to Silent Hill, a quiet resort town. Harry's wife has recently passed away, and the trip is to be a sort of therapeutic escape for the two of them. Just ahead on the dark highway, a figure appears out of thin air, and as a startled Harry swerves to avoid it, his Jeep veers off-road and crashes into a fence, the impact knocking him unconscious. When Harry finally awakens, he notices Cheryl is missing, and the fence he crashed into just so happens to lead into Silent Hill...

The first thing you’ll notice as the real game begins is the spooky, atmospheric, pea soup fog that you can hardly see ten feet in. Despite the game being programmed to lead you in a certain direction in order to get the story going, you’ll want to take the time to go back the way you came, getting used to the controls and playing around with the camera buttons. While you explore the game world, take note of the very realistic and solid feel to all the buildings, cars, and trees and the way they appear quite realistically out of that same fog.

At this point, the game takes over, and Harry at first hears footsteps and then sees what he thinks is Cheryl, and heads toward her. But she runs away, first between some houses in the distance, and then into an alley. As you follow her, the sense of unease you had develops into a bit of fear as you come upon the bloody remains of what looks like a dog. A couple of steps further sees the camera do the first of its many cool cinematic angle shots, and you’ll also start to notice all the eerie music and ambient noises growing and changing with every few steps you take. As soon as you turn a certain corner and go through a different gate, things get decidedly weirder, as first it grows dark, then the light snow suddenly turns into rain. You take out some matches, light one (“better than nothing”), and move forward despite the fear growing in your body at a rapid pace.

silenthill2ps1.jpg (22448 bytes)By match light, visibility is just as poor as earlier, but things are getting really frightening, now that it’s dark. But it’s not just the dark, it’s what’s in the darkness: a wheelchair on its side, one bent wheel spinning slowly, a hospital gurney with what seems to be a bloody body under a dirty sheet; this and other twisted visions seem to appear at every turn. The game camera does its thing again as you come upon a maze of bloody chain link fencing topped with barbed wire, and pools of blood on the ground. Just when you’re about to turn and run from all this, You see a rotting body hanging on a fence right in front of you! The next thing you realize, you’re surrounded by what looks like a number of skinned, faceless dwarves, and the knives they’re holding look quite deadly! You run, but soon find the way out is blocked, and those hideous things are all over you in a flash, knives slashing deep...

This is only the first five minutes or so of the game I’ve just spent a few hundred words on, and just the act of writing those words has sent a chill down my spine. Like I said earlier, Silent Hill has a way of drawing you in and holding your attention, then it does its best to make you want to look away, or turn it off, but some part of you just can’t...or won’t. Harry Mason has to not only find his daughter, he has to also find his sanity as events in the game unfold, making him question the unreality of what's happening. He soon meets Cybil Bennett, a female police officer from the next town over, who gives him a gun, then goes off to bring back help, and shortly thereafter Harry meets his first “resident” of this strange village, a huge demon bird, that gives you a chance to use that gun. After dispatching the thing, you grab a nearby map of the town, along with a flashlight, sharp knife, and the pocket radio that let out a screech just before that "bird" crashed in on you and you’re off to find Cheryl...

The masterful design of the game lets you do a bit of exploring in each section of the town, but there are some areas that you can’t reach as they’re parts of other puzzles in the game. The best thing about this setup is that the player is as in the dark (literally) as poor Harry, and this feeling of helplessness adds to the other crazy goings on. Harry can control his fate just about as well as any normal man- he’s a terrible shot, will often trip if he decides to jump down short flights of steps, and can’t run more than a long block or two without gasping for air (perhaps those matches he had used earlier means he’s an ex-smoker?). But as you go through the game, you’ll find a few ways to compensate for most of Harry’s shortcomings. Running away from fights instead of wasting precious ammo and medicine, shutting off the flashlight and attempting to go as quietly as possible through a hall filled with demons, using the radio to detect and avoid danger, and the maps if (and when) you get lost, along with the proper solving of a great many puzzles are ahead of you.

The puzzles in Silent Hill go from the incredibly easy to the easily infuriating, especially if you’re the impatient sort. Most of them can be solved by a bit of trial and error, but there are one or two that have you doing a bit of reference in order to get to a solution. I always disliked these sort of “additions” in action-based videogames, as they take too much away from the story and make the getting from points A to B far too tedious (as in Tomb Raider III), but for the most part, the puzzles here are pretty good. The games’ designers have also got my eternal respect for doing the unthinkable: changing the position of items and the solutions of certain puzzles in the game AFTER all the strategy guides and walkthroughs were put out! This made a lot of people mad as hell, but how else to mess with your mind, but to “give” you the answers you need before the test, only to change the test! This wild sense of humor also extends to the signs on the shops in the game, the harmless, squeaking ghostly enemies that take a few steps and fall over before vanishing, and the cool CG “outtakes” that run at the end of the game. The laughs you find in the middle of all the terror lightens things up a great deal...

Later in the game, you meet a few other people, who offer assorted degrees of assistance and some conversation, but most of them have other hidden agendas that become clear as you go through the game. The strange old woman, Dahlia, who shows up to give you items and then slips away, the shady Doctor Kaufman, whom you can’t trust even after you save his life, Lisa, a nurse that seems to be the only normal person you meet in the otherworld’s dank, evil hospital, and the mysterious, mute Alessa, who somehow seems to be the key to everything in this twisted world. Cybil has another fate as well, if you should choose the wrong path...

The game’s designers have created two distinct but connected worlds, each one with its share of prowling bestial hazards. As I mentioned, everything looks all too real, from the dark halls and classrooms of the school early in the game, to all the rusty grated streets and decay of the otherworld. You always feel as if you’re somewhere familiar- almost like you’re dreaming, but if you have dreams like this, you’d best stay awake. A couple of key events are played out using some of the best CG cinemas created for a game, and this makes the characters and a few of their fates seem a lot more realistic. The use of sound and music here is truly genius, notably in those moments when you really think something’s going to happen and it doesn’t, only to be startled out of your skin seconds later. The “cat in the locker” events in both the “normal” and “ evil” schools are but one example. To me, the best scare comes toward the latter part of the game, when you first enter the sewers and the little red pocket radio that you’ve trusted for so long suddenly and very, very unexpectedly stops working...the next half hour or so of unrelenting fear is priceless.

Depending on your choices (and skill), the game has five endings, two good and two bad ones plus a “special” ending if one finishes and saves a game, then starts over and finds and uses a certain item in a few specific places. The first time I played through the game, I was writing a review for a website and was in a bit of a rush. I missed one or two items, as well as a very important conversation, so I got one of the bad endings (boo). But after a short, particularly depressing ending clip, the really funny CG outtakes and end credits, I started playing again and the game seemed to loop, as if my first chance was just a bad dream! This is a great touch- except if you use the autosave feature, and it bumps the difficulty up a level! You also get a star rating on your efforts, from which you’ll receive a nice assortment of special items and/or weapons to make things easier (or tougher, in some cases).

The few flaws in Silent Hill are some of the same as in Resident Evil, such as the voice acting on two of the characters (Doctor Kaufman and Alessa as a little girl), a few parts of the English translation (a bit odd, but in a Twin Peaks sort of way), and again, some of the puzzles. But the full 3D world, disturbing story, music, and sound FX more than make up for these tiny defects. By the way, the “M” (Mature) rating on the disc is there for a good reason: this game is way over the heads of most of the juvenile, big action movie zombie slaying of the Resident Evil games, and most, if not all the younger ones should be kept away from this until they can fully understand some of the mechanics of fear and psychological horror. Silent Hill is one of those games that will never feel dated, no matter how many new systems come out. This is truly THE new horror classic, in my eyes, and a game that will stick in your mind weeks after you've finished it. Now, if only Konami would FINALLY bring over it's excellent import game, Policenauts ...


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Last updated: Tuesday, October 11, 2005 12:45 AM